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Tom Hunter on "Do genre awards actually sell books?"

Dark EdenShortly after winning the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett was listed as #4 in the Amazon UK charts for paid books on Kindle.

Not a subsection Amazon chart but #4 out of all the paid books being bought on Kindle at that time.

Dan Brown was #3.

Why is this important?

One of the first things I was told when I initially got involved with the Clarke Award almost a decade ago was that, while all very nice and lovely, no genre award, especially no UK genre award of which the Clarke was certainly the biggest, and ever had any real effect on actual book sales.

If we weren’t selling books, the logic went, none of the other awards would be either.

Side Note 1: When I say ‘selling books’ I’m using this to mean sales in the kind of numbers and time frames that publishers can actually notice. I’m not really talking about a couple of extra sales at a dealer's table, although those definitely help too!

As someone who first heard of the Arthur C. Clarke Award when it was one of the deciding factors in my spontaneously buying an intriguing new book called VURT by Jeff Noon – it was printed in the back copy too, not even on the front! – I wasn’t entirely sure this perceived wisdom was true, but then again I was a case study of one.

More research was needed, and since I’d been brought into the Clarke Award team with a specific mandate to increase its reach and public recognition, I knew the question of book sales, and demonstrating that we could move the needle, was going to be a large part of my mission.

Book Scan and similar tools have improved the publishing industry’s ability to monitor sales, but they are only half the picture and one of the things publishing is woefully behind on is the ability to link sales to marketing or other activity.

So, let’s look again at Dark Eden’s sudden jump to the Top 5 spot.

First, I need to be clear that it didn’t hold that position for very long compared to many of the other illustrious titles it was briefly rubbing shoulders with, and when it dropped, it was just as quickly out of the Top 100 altogether.

Right now it is number 16,643 in the same chart and, for comparison at the time of writing, last year’s winner of the Clarke Award (and everything else), Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, is currently in position 2404.

Still not bad considering the book was actually first published in January 2012 and so was storming the charts over a year after it’s initial publication!

Could the Clarke Award win have helped?

Short answer: yes.

A couple of other crucial factors helped too.

Credit to publisher Atlantic Books who helped by moving fast and getting behind the win as much as they could.

For instance, artwork for the paperback edition was quickly updated so that the jacket proudly announced the win in prominent text right at the top of the front cover while people were still talking about the win.

They also took the step of dramatically reducing the Kindle ebook price for a short-term promotional period down to the magic 99p figure.

That’s the same magic bullet number that iTunes first insisted upon for the price of a single, by the way, and it still clearly has resonance for impulse and experimental purchasing with readers as long as it is coupled with other motivating factors inspiring people to buy the book e.g. buzz around an awards win. 

Research also clearly indicates that an ebook price of 99p on its own is not necessarily going to shift any more units these days. You need the story behind the price offer as well and, of course, the fact that both Atlantic and the Clarke were promoting the heck out of this limited time pricing all over social media so people knew about it didn’t hurt.

So, here at least, we can demonstrate a direct link between an award win and a sales spike where a publisher acted quickly and cannily to maximize this moment of attention.

Side Note 2: I’ve talked about this case study with multiple publishers and their authors since, and it’s interesting that there are many different schools of thought when it comes to ebook price strategy and prizes, and I’ve seen many publishers opt to keep prices fixed when a book wins or is shortlisted precisely because they reason that it’s now or never to get more full price sales in.

For ebooks at least, I think the #4 chart position shows it may pay better to reap the maximum number of short-term sales in order to increase and sustain word of mouth for your book in the longer term, especially if it’s over a year since it’s first publication when there’s definitely no more marketing or PR resource in the pot to help get the message out.

This would obviously go double for any book where you know there’s a sequel on the way.

This is only one case study, and not every year can work as well, but the Book Scan information I’ve seen for other recent Clarke Award winners shows that in the month after the win each winner enjoyed an approximate 200% positive jump in sales from their previous numbers.

That’s a consistent percentage jump, and a total growth of 200% after the win would be larger the number of books being sold already. In other words, the buzz typically amplifies more the more popular the book is already.

Still, a 200% increase from projected sales of any kind still sounds pretty good to me.

Side Note 3: This is for recent winners excluding Ancillary Justice, although that did have a sales jump, it’s just hard to know which bit was related to the Clarke Award as that book was winning everything!
Side Note 4: All of the above is specific about books sales of a winning title immediately following that win and doesn’t, for instance, include sales of future books or the additional long-terms benefits a win might have on an author’s career or their ability to do new book deals with publishers. Our best recent case study here is definitely Lauren Beukes, who is on record crediting the Clarke win for Zoo City as a major positive turning point in her career. In some cases then and award win can not only sell more of that book it can assist with the creation and sale of future books too.

In conclusion then, given the right combination of a popular winning title, an agile and willing publisher, some canny pricing and a little social media magic, it’s definitely possible for a genre prize to sell rather a lot of books, even if neither the publisher or the award has a huge budget to help with the marketing.

Awards sell books. Hurrah! Mission accomplished, right?

Well, not quite. This is only a small part of the business side of awards, the side that often goes unconsidered in the rush to discuss shortlists and winners and diversity and voting blocks and self-publishing eligibility and all of the other topics that more typically make up the conversation surrounding awards.

Right now, with the 30th anniversary of the Arthur C. Clarke Award just around the corner in 2016, we’re very keen to explore and develop the actual business thinking behind awards to make sure we keep growing in the right direction.

In the meantime, comments are open, and I’m especially interested to hear your own thoughts and ideas on whether an award win (or its canny price discount) has ever influenced you to purchase a particular book and, of course, whether you then went on to actually read it…

[Editor's note: Tom's agreed to come back and answer pretty much anything about anything, either in the comments or in a future blog post. Consider this an AMA with the director of a major genre award.]

Tom Hunter is the Director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Learn more about the prize at www.clarkeaward.com, admire the 2015 shortlist here, and hassle him on Twitter at @clarkeaward.